Amrita Hepi crosses boundaries of visual art, dance and performance, making her one of the most in-demand artists of the moment. By Emma Pegrum.
Dancer, choreographer and visual artist Amrita Hepi
“I wish I could say that I’ve been on a consistent trajectory, but it’s just not the case,” says dancer, choreographer and visual artist Amrita Hepi. “A lot of the work I make, I wish it was born out of a place of grace, but usually it’s in some reactive sense. I hope it smooths out into a more graceful disposition.”
Dewy faced, her hair pulled back, Hepi looks radiant. We’re chatting on Zoom as she sits on the floor of a book-lined living room. As we speak, she’s in the thick of rehearsals for Rinse, which was performed last week as part of the Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art at Performance Space in Sydney.
It’s only one of a dizzying range of projects this year – Hepi is part of a group show at Gertrude Contemporary in Preston that opens next week; she is part of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Primavera 2022: Young Australian Artists exhibition, which opened on Friday; and she is in another group exhibition at ACMI next month. She must be one of the most in-demand contemporary artists in Australia.
Hepi speaks of the multiplicities that make up her practice with a weightlessness that feels at once natural and hard-wrought. She communicates with movement as much as words and shifts seamlessly between subjects as varied as artificial intelligence, desire and music videos.
“Nothing is impermeable,” she says. “I’m like a sponge. As exhausting as that is sometimes, it’s nice to bring things into the fold and craft something that’s precious, that comes from a whole heap of different things.” There is a sense of pulling things together, of attempting to harness or herd things in our conversation, that at once warps and elucidates meaning.
The performance of Rinse marks a homecoming of sorts. Originally commissioned for the Keir Choreographic Award, a shorter version premiered in early 2020 at Dancehouse in Melbourne and at Carriageworks in Sydney. This is the first time Hepi has performed in Sydney – where she began her career – since then. The work has expanded in the interim, she says. For one, it is now “evening length” – 50 minutes, rather than 20 – but it is also occurring in a different moment of her life.
“When I first made Rinse, I was facing some really big endings,” Hepi says. “My father had passed, I had gotten out of a long-term relationship, and I’d moved to a new city.” At the time, she rejected the sense that whatever she created was about these endings. Instead, she asked: “How do you begin?”
The result is a work combining movement and text that attempts to articulate our lust for beginnings – the tantalising energy of first rushes, whether it’s romance, an idea, a meal, a story. “It traverses a multiplicity of beginnings,” she says. “What makes the start of something so thrilling, violent, free, memorable, scandalous? When we trace our origin stories, what stands out in time? As soon as we can see the beginning of something, there is a clear emergence, and there’s something about that understanding of beginning that also makes you understand its limits.”
Hepi isn’t one to think in singular terms – the circularity of beginnings and endings, how there are embers of each within the other, isn’t lost on her. Rinse explores what happens as the oxygen of the new sparks heats, but also considers what comes next, as the cinders burn out. Ideas such as this – “small fires”, she calls them – are the source of her practice. “Honestly, I think I’m just a stickybeak,” she says. “I’m like: ‘That doesn’t seem quite right. Better have a closer look.’ ”
Now she seems comfortable with the idea that her work might be a natural extension of her experiences and state of mind. “Rinse does look at my own story,” she says. “I guess it always comes from a personal place, trying to touch on the universal.”
Descriptions of her practice often focus on its hybridisation of forms – dance, film, installation – but her work also embodies hybridity as a mode of being in a world shaped by forces such as empire and colonisation, power and expectation, or even love, desire and self-perception. “When I first started making work, I was thinking a lot about this dilemma around what is real, or the dilemma of authenticity,” Hepi says. “I think I could say what was real or felt real to me one day, and then the next… smoke and mirrors.”
While Hepi says her trajectory as an artist hasn’t been consistent, many of her prevailing interests – including this concern with authenticity – have been. She was born in Townsville in 1989, of Bundjalung and Ngāpuhi heritage on her father’s side, and she grew up between Townsville, Sydney’s Northern Beaches and New Zealand. “Talking origin stories, I feel like I grew up in small coastal towns,” she says. Her parents were separated and her big family (“my little sister Althea, another sister and another few sisters”) was often spread across places.
She first discovered a love of song, movement and dance through her father, whose faith – a blend of Christianity inherited through assimilationist missions and his cultural lore – saw Hepi engage in different religious and ritualistic practices from a young age. “I really liked going to church when we were at school, or when I was with my father’s family, or even going to Christian camp,” she says. “I loved singing, I loved dancing, these people encouraged it, and I was allowed to ask all of these questions. I had a lot of questions.”
Her inquisitive nature kicked in as early as her desire to choreograph. She recalls her need as a child to arrange and attend to things. “Coming from a big family, I was like, ‘How do I organise my time? And how do I organise you?’ ” she says. “And when I’m here, what’s the performance of being where I am? And how can I get you to watch what I’m doing?”
As a young First Nations dancer, Hepi also felt the demand for authenticity imposed on her by those with assumptions about what her culture should be. She recalls being asked by a facilitator, while away on an arts camp as a child, to share “one of your cultural stories”. She scrambled for an answer (“my dad loves the Townsville Cowboys!”) and ended up retelling Mem Fox’s Possum Magic.
As a teenager, Hepi danced in the New South Wales Public Schools Dance Ensemble, competitively in eisteddfods, and through The Australian Ballet School. She had experiences in kapa haka, corroboree and other cultural dance events. When she finished school she danced on a cruise ship for a while, before the pressures of young adulthood forced a hiatus.
“There was this heightened awareness of the body changing at a certain point, and there was an added layer on top, which was: not only are you becoming a young adult female, you’re also all these other things,” Hepi says. “You need to dance authentically. You need to make sure you’re representing all of your people and all of this history, and you’ve got to be the best – and don’t get diabetes, you could get heart disease. Then the problem of being seen in a desirable way or performing desirability and its many different layers. It was a lot. So I stopped.”
Hepi found her way back to dance through working in reception at a dance school, and eventually ended up at the National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association Dance College before studying for a year at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre in New York City. There, she was “adopted” into the legendary House of Xtravaganza, one of the most publicly recognised voguing houses to emerge from New York’s underground ballroom scene, founded in 1982. “That, for a 21-year-old from the fucking middle of nowhere on the Northern Beaches and Far North Queensland, is thrilling. It’s high-octane stuff,” she says.
She is well-known for the dance classes she began when she returned to Sydney, aged 22. “I probably owe a lot of royalties and some of my savings to Rihanna and Beyoncé,” she says. Early on, she also danced with Marrugeku, but her most notable work has been as an independent artist and, more recently, since signing with Anna Schwartz Gallery early last year.
Her preoccupation with authenticity remains, but now it expands her practice. She approaches the idea of authenticity as a dilemma – something to be inspected – rather than as a necessity, or even a possibility. Dance and choreography are channels for assembling meaning in hybrid form. “I always liked the community elements of dance. I liked performing. I fucking loved video clips. You get to take on a new persona, a new mask, to test the boundaries of what is possible,” she says.
These notions flow directly into Hepi’s interest in digital and machine intervention. This is prevalent throughout her oeuvre but is brought into new focus in her work for the MCA’s Primavera exhibition, Open Poses.
It’s a three-channel, participatory video work, in which the viewer is confronted with their own image on screen via webcam. Next to it is a set of images of Hepi striking poses. The participant is prompted to pose in response, and their image is captured and superimposed onto Hepi’s. “It creates a bigger, exquisite corpse archive,” Hepi says. “I’m not using this work to make a statement about corporate surveillance, although it makes it anyway. I’m interested in what the participant is willing to do in the space; in how machines make us view our own body and how they are performing a social choreography.”
The user-driven dynamic of social media and Web 2.0 creates an experience of having our selfhood shaped by how we’re viewed, Hepi says. “Now it’s even more stringent, because it’s not necessarily a value judgement from other people,” she says. “It’s a data set that will tell you what you are, and maybe completely ignore your personhood.” She circles back on herself, conflating Rinse and Open Poses, pondering: “How do we begin to know you, in a ‘surveilled’ way?”
She describes another upcoming work, Scripture for a smoke screen: Episode 1 – dolphin house (2022), which will premiere at ACMI from December 16 as part of How I See It: Blak Art and Film, a showcase of eight First Nations artists and filmmakers from the 1970s to now. The work – the first episode of a series, Hepi says – takes as its departure point the story of Margaret Lovatt and Peter the dolphin, who lived together for six months as part of a 1960s experiment about human–dolphin communication.
The “dolphin house” experiment, somewhat bizarrely, was funded by a number of government agencies, including NASA. Hepi came upon it through a psychiatrist friend with whom she shared an interest in different forms of communication.
“I thought, what an odd framing for intelligence and innovation in language,” she says. “In the film, I’m having conversations with Peter. It’s about how language is sometimes all we have, but also fails us; how we teach and receive language.”
Again, this interest in the intersections between the public and the private, politics and the body, and in how to navigate it all. The complicated and problematic power dynamics of the dolphin house experiment fascinate Hepi: they force her to confront her own place in everything. We start talking about culture and art as propaganda and soft power, and the ethics of making art in a capitalist economy. “It made me wonder where I slot into all this, as a First Nations person, as a woman,” she says. “How does my cultural capital, or lack of, fit into a greater narrative?”
The more we talk, the more obvious it becomes why dance and choreography are Hepi’s chosen mediums. The language of movement mirrors her own: “Dance is this paradoxical thing whereby you can say something so clearly, but it still has enough atmosphere or ambiguity around it for people to come to it with their own thinking.”
Hepi – like truth or authenticity or meaning in dance – is difficult to hold in view, and all the more captivating for it. “I’ve always liked the definition of choreography as the organisation of space and time. I felt incredibly free, hearing that for the first time,” she says. “I’m interested in how dance can stretch the minutes of focus and attention. You find yourself entering into a world, different to any other you’ve been burdened with, and you’re just moving your body toward nothing or something, in order to speed time up, or slow it down.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 5, 2022 as "High-octane fuel".
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